For most Australians, Manus Island and Nauru are far away places, where people we have never seen and will never know await a fate controlled by other strangers who we know only from news headlines. But The Messenger, a podcast produced by The Wheeler Centre and Behind the Wire, gives us a rare opportunity to get to know Aziz, a young man living in a detention centre on Manus Island.
— Laura Jean McKay (@laurajeanmckay) February 12, 2017
The Messenger is a mix of journalism and oral history, told using new millenium technology. Aziz is unable to get good reception for his smuggled mobile phone, so he communicates with journalist Michael Green via a series of WhatsApp messages. The short audio messages appear on Michael's phone at all hours of the day and night, sometimes over a hundred in a day, and not in the same order in which Aziz recorded them. Such is the difficulty of communicating with someone inside detention. Michael painstakingly pieces the jigsaw back together, and we are able to listen to Aziz tell his story of how he came to be a refugee from Sudan living in detention in Papua New Guinea.
— The Wheeler Centre (@wheelercentre) April 12, 2017
Aziz talks about the reasons he was unable to stay in his home country, and the desperate circumstances that led him to risk his life to try and reach Australia. Not being an expert on the civil war in Sudan, Michael consults academic experts to help explain what's happened there. It's complicated, but not so much that we can't understand the very real risks to the lives of people who, just like us, wanted to live in peace with their families.
Michael also talks to a former Department of Immigration staff member involved in the Manus Island detention centre about the transition from a largely administrative detention centre, to a punitive pentitentiary-style centre.
Although Aziz's activities are largely controlled and monitored, he does have avenues for expression of protest. To listen to the story of his hunger strike during the month marking the anniversary of the 1981 IRA political prisoners' hunger strikes was powerfully moving. The seventh episode also delves into the cognitive dissonance between being locked up on a remote island, far away from any family or friends who can physically see or help him, and being constantly connected to the world via Facebook. To hear the messages from detainees awaiting the outcome of Australia's 2016 Federal elections, and what impact they felt it might have on their own survival, brought a new perspective to the importance of democractic engagement.
One of the most important reasons to listen to The Messenger is to enable a voice for asylum seekers in any debate about their future. While we're unlikely to see Aziz given column space in The Australian or the chance to speak for himself in Parliament, we can hear what he tells us and use that information to better inform our own actions. At the very least, we can share his story with family and friends who are still unsure about the right course of action when it comes to ending offshore detention - with empathy comes a pathway to a stronger community.
For Aziz, the future remains uncertain, and there are still three more episodes of the podcast to be released. While I hope for a happy ending, I think it will be up to all of us to make sure that happens.